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Wild Root Something to 'Sang' About

Most folks don't keep their gardens secret. They usually want to show them off. But most folks don't grow ginseng -- at least not in plain sight.

American ginseng (Panax quinquefolium L.) was discovered growing in Canada in the late 1700s. Regarded as a great healing medicine in the Orient, it has been sold there ever since.

Parts of ginseng are used for everything from stomach pain analgesics to aphrodisiacs. After extensive research on its effects and contents, there is still little proof of its effectiveness.

But this lack of proof hasn't hampered the demand for the wild root. In fact, due to the high demand, it has been cultivated for years and still fetches a high price on certain markets.

Ginseng is native to the hardwood and mixed forests of the Orient and eastern North America. In Georgia it's mainly in the northern reaches, where it sometimes can be found growing wild but more often is cultivated.

Due to the wild crop's depletion, the state has enacted laws placing limits on harvests. Ginseng harvests are limited to plants with three or more prongs and can be dug from only Aug. 1 to Dec. 31.

Diggers must have permission from landowners or from district ranger stations on U.S. Forest Service property. They must also plant ginseng berries wherever they dig roots.

Ginseng grows to about one foot high with five egg-shaped leaves. It has greenish-yellow flowers in clusters. The fruit is a bright crimson berry with one to three wrinkled seeds.

Mature roots are spindle-shaped, 2-4 inches long and 1 inch thick. Roots don't reach a marketable size until they're five to seven years old.

Ginseng's market value is based on color, maturity, size and form. Wild roots generally bring a higher price than cultivated roots. Northern U.S. plants are generally preferred for export. Only whole roots are acceptable for sale, so they must be carefully dug and washed.

Growing ginseng takes care, patience and the right environment. You can grow it from seeds, seedlings or roots. The crop requires 5-7 years to mature from seed.

Plant scarified or partially germinated seeds in the spring. Make rows and hills about 8 inches apart. Cover seeds with 1 inch of forest soil or well-rotted hickory sawdust.

To reduce time to harvest, plant one-, two- or three-year-old seedlings instead of seeds. Roots are best planted in the fall but can be planted anytime from April to October.

To prepare for planting, break the soil to 6-8 inches and mix 1:1 with fiber-free soil. A well-drained site, preferably on raised beds, is necessary.

The site should only get 10 percent to 25 percent sunlight. Make beds 4 feet wide. Work soil to 12 inches when planting roots. Good air circulation is also important.

Keep the beds free of weeds and grasses. Cultivate only by scratching the ground with a light implement. Cover beds with a weed-free mulch 3-5 inches deep during winter. Remove the mulch before the first sprouts appear in spring. Fertilize only by incorporating leaves or old sawdust from hardwood trees. You may also apply bone meal at one pound per square yard.

Once harvested, whole roots must be dried starting at 60-80 degrees and increasing to 90 degrees over several days. Spread roots on netted shelves and turn them frequently. Roots more than two inches thick will have to be dried for about six weeks.

Because of the strong foreign market, ginseng has developed a reputation of being "poached" from owners' lands -- particularly the wild root, which brings higher prices. So if you plan to grow ginseng, keep your garden secret.

(Terry Kelley is a former University of Georgia Cooperative Extension horticulturist with the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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